Lithium Demand Propels Contested U.S. Mining Claims

In the Great Basin Desert, on the border between the U.S. states Oregon and Nevada, lies the McDermitt Caldera, a collapsed volcano that formed an ancient lakebed. The caldera holds precious minerals, including one of the world's largest deposits of lithium, an essential component of batteries for electric vehicles. While almost all the lithium used in the United States today is imported, the federal government has listed lithium as a mineral that is critical to the country's economic and national security.

The Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries, a collection of U.S. federal agencies developing a collaborative strategy for ensuring U.S. self-sufficiency in the battery supply chain, last June released the National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries with five critical goals. The first is "securing U.S. access to raw materials by incentivizing growth in safe, equitable and sustainable domestic mining ventures while leveraging partnerships with allies and partners to establish a diversified supply."

AS WE GROW THE CLEAN ENERGY ECONOMY, CRITICAL MINERALS FOR ELECTRIC VEHICLES LARGE CAPACITY BATTERIES, WIND TURBINES, AND OTHER CLEAN ENERGY TECHNOLOGIES, SUCH AS LITHIUM, COBALT, AND NICKEL, ARE PROJECTED TO INCREASE IN DEMAND BY 400-600 PERCENT IN THE COMING DECADES.

President Joe Biden

The Thacker Pass lithium mine site in the McDermitt Caldera
The Thacker Pass lithium mine site in the McDermitt Caldera

"The current global supply chains for these minerals too often fail to adhere to strong social and environmental standards, despite the demands of the end customers and companies," the White House said in a statement.

Recent statements from both sides of the U.S. political spectrum have expressed concern with the current dependence of the country on foreign sources of critical minerals, including lithium.

On March 8, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, introduced legislation to support processing and production of critical minerals to increase and expand domestic manufacturing and ease reliance on foreign sources.

"It’s past time the United States became a competitive producer of critical minerals and weans itself off of both foreign oil and gas imports and the critical minerals that are essential to building the next generation of clean energy products like batteries," Wyden said in a statement announcing the measure.

A bipartisan letter to President Joe Biden on March 11, jointly signed by Republican Senators Murkowski, Risch and Cassidy, and Democratic Senator Manchin, urged the president to invoke the Defense Production Act to accelerate production of battery materials, including lithium.

Lithium Stampede Overruns Tribal Concerns

The McDermitt Caldera is the epicenter of interest in lithium mining, with three mining claims by three different foreign companies at various stages of permitting. So, while the mines will extract lithium from the United States, the mining companies that will profit are from Canada and Australia.

In January 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved the Thacker Pass lithium mine, a two-square-mile open-pit mine in northeastern Nevada to be run by Lithium Nevada, a subsidiary of Canadian-owned Lithium Americas. It has a stated mineral reserve of 3.1 million tonnes.

Approval came despite BLM acknowledgement that the mine would threaten nearly 60 culturally or historically significant Native American sites, and the decision is being challenged in court.

A broad coalition has sued to stop the Lithium Nevada mine in U.S. District Court in Nevada, saying it would have negative impacts on water supplies, that it would threaten golden eagles and sage grouse, that the federal government’s review process was improperly rushed and that the government had failed to properly consult with affected tribes.

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, which joined the Burns Paiute Tribe in the federal lawsuit, said survey and archaeological work has been done without their consultation or participation.

"These sites hold the history, culture and ancestors of the Great Basin Tribes," Reno-Sparks Chairman Arlan Melendez said in a statement. "This lithium mine stands in the way of our roots and it’s violating the religious freedoms of our elders, our people."

The two other large lithium claims on the Oregon side of the border are also owned by foreign entities. One in the McDermitt Caldera by the Australian company Jindalee Resources Ltd. has an estimated mineral resource of 1.43 billion tons. The other by Acme Lithium Inc., another Canada-based corporation, is located just outside the caldera.

There are deep environmental and tribal concerns about the impact these lithium mines will have on the area, which is sacred to Native American nations. The Thacker Pass mine would reach into ancestral lands of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes, the Burns Paiute Tribe, Reno Sparks Indian Colony and the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of Duck Valley Indian Reservation.

For millennia, Indigenous peoples used the Thacker Pass to travel between their winter and summer homes. Today, the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe’s reservation is located near the mine site, along with the small farming community of Orovada.

Several of the tribes, along with environmental groups and others, say the Lithium Nevada mine would ruin their land, resources and culture, depleting or poisoning water supplies, destroying sacred sites, degrading wildlife habitat and leaving behind hazardous waste.

Writing May 5 on the website of the environmental group Protect Thacker Pass, Elisabeth Robson dubbed the whole caldera the "new lithium sacrifice zone." She warned that the lithium mine "... will turn this entire region into a fully industrialized area with roads, mining pits, refineries, waste dumps, a dramatic increase in truck and other vehicle traffic, and new housing and/or man camps and other developments to support the many hundreds if not thousands of workers that will be required to mine the area."

The company has tried to reassure the tribes and environmentalists.

"Lithium Nevada is committed to building an environmentally responsible project and spent more than 10 years conducting exploration as well as the environmental and cultural studies necessary for the state and federal permitting processes," Maria Anderson, Lithium Nevada’s community relations manager, told reporters.

"In addition to providing widespread benefits in the fight against climate change," Anderson said, "the local benefits to the community are exciting."

Biden Reaches Out to All Sides

On May 10, the White House convened over 20 representatives from states, Tribes, the mining industry, environmental groups, labor unions, automakers, legal experts, and other stakeholders on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Mining Law of 1872.

This meeting was the first external engagement of the Interagency Working Group on Mining Regulations, Laws, and Permitting, which is charged with providing recommendations to Congress on how to reform the mining law to ensure new production meets strong environmental standards throughout the lifecycle of the project, ensure meaningful community consultation and consultation with Tribal nations, and reduce the time, cost, and risk of mine permitting.

The meeting was held to begin creating a modern legal framework for the socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable mining and production of these minerals. The administration issued principles for mining reform in February to guide this effort.

Participants were encouraged by the meeting. Sam Penney, Chairman, Nez Perce, said, "The Nez Perce Tribe appreciates the White House convening the mining reform meeting today. Listening to the various perspectives of states, Tribes, and stakeholders is an important initial step. Protection of treaty reserved rights and upholding federal trust responsibility are critical aspects of mining reform."

Collin O’Mara, president and CEO, National Wildlife Federation was supportive too. "Responsibly mined critical minerals are essential for our clean energy future and our national security - and it’s time that we finally move our 19th century laws into the 21st century."

PRESIDENT BIDEN AND HIS ADMINISTRATION HAVE MADE IT CLEAR THAT THEY ARE SERIOUS ABOUT RESPONSIBLY PRODUCING A SECURE DOMESTIC SUPPLY OF CRITICAL MINERALS THROUGH RECLAMATION, RECYCLING, AND NEW MINING, WHILE FULLY SUPPORTING COMMUNITIES AND WORKERS, REMEDIATING ABANDONED MINES, AND ADDRESSING THE IMPACTS ON CLEAN DRINKING WATER, LANDS, AND WILDLIFE AND PEOPLE ALIKE.

Collin O'Mara, President and CEO, National Wildlife Federation.

John Ruple, professor of law at the University of Utah, said, "The 150-year-old General Mining Law is like driving a stagecoach, and it’s time to trade in the stagecoach for an electric vehicle. Today’s meeting included a broad representation of mining stakeholders - from multinational mining corporations to Tribes and environmentalists, to organized labor and academia. Universally, we agree on the value in updating the 150-year-old General Mining Law to increase the supply of strategic minerals and an opportunity to improve environmental stewardship and collaboration with Native Nations."

Additional lithium mining stakeholder meetings will be held over the coming months, and the Biden administration will accept public comments through July 31, 2022.